Autonomous driving becomes a topic for inland navigation

Autonomous driving becomes a topic for inland navigation

Technology News |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

Small, flexible inland waterway vessels that automatically communicate with each other, calculate their routes themselves and can load and unload their cargo independently – without a captain. This is how experts see the future of networked freight transport on the water. The automation of inland waterway vessels is one way of exploiting the great, hitherto untapped potential of this means of transport.

As a first step, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), together with partners from industry and government, is planning to set up a digital test field for inland waterway vessels on the Spree-Oder waterway between the ports of Königs Wusterhausen and Eisenhüttenstadt (Germany) in the state of Brandenburg. Construction is to begin in 2020. “There we will have the opportunity to test individual basic technologies that will further automate the inland navigation vessel step by step,” says Dr. Ralf Ziebold from the DLR Institute for Communication and Navigation in Neustrelitz. Together with his team, Ziebold has already developed assistance systems for inland waterway vessels.

The researchers are currently working on a technology with which the ship can automatically enter and leave a lock without the captain having to take any action. Such or similar technologies could be investigated on the test field in the future. Navigation using global satellite navigation systems such as Galileo will play an important role here. Based on the knowledge gained, completely autonomous inland waterway vessels will also be able to navigate on the test field in the future.

In addition, the scientists want to investigate where ships can be used in established freight transport chains. Today, the majority of transports are carried out by truck. If part of the freight transport is shifted to water, this could greatly relieve road traffic. “The plans of the German government envisage that by 2030 freight transport by inland waterway will grow by 23 percent. To achieve this, we must make this mode of transport more competitive,” comments Ziebold. However, transport on waterways currently plays only a very minor role – in 2017 only 5 percent of goods were transported by inland waterway. Transport on waterways could relieve overcrowded roads and motorways from truck traffic, and in addition there would be fewer emissions and virtually no noise pollution.

Currently, inland waterway vessels are frequently used to transport bulk goods such as coal or ore. As a consequence, ships have become longer, wider and heavier in recent years. Since the transport of bulk goods – for example due to the planned end of coal mining in Germany – is declining and that of container loads and heavy goods is constantly increasing, inland waterway vessels also need to become more flexible. The scientists want to investigate which other applications are possible, for example smaller container units that can be loaded and unloaded independently. Digital assistance systems can determine the most energy- and resource-saving driving style and detect accident risks at an early stage.


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